Chameleon: An Interactive ExplorationPart VI -- Reminiscing Anecdotally
-- Clarence Shepard Day, Jr., once-reknowned author, poet, artist, and outspoken supporter of women's rights
"My love for you is like the ocean: vast, volatile, and potentially deadly."
"The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so."
"For you shall go out in joy/ and be led back in peace./ the mountains and hills before you/ shall burst into song./ and all the trees of the field shall/ clap their hands."
"In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you."
I, A Woman
Prelude (Abbreviated Synopsis of the Synopsis of Technology and Me) -- Strophe -- Growing Up Rich (To The Manner/Manor Born) -- Manhattan! -- Music and Hippiedom -- Settling Down and Yuppiedom -- Technology and Careerism -- Wilderness Basics (Beasts and Heathens Part 1) -- Art and the Internet (Beasts and Heathens Part 2) -- Epic Coitus Interruptus -- Town/Community Life -- Frivolities -- Beasts and Heathens (Finale) -- Recoveries -- Reprise -- Joie Plaisir Eibr -- NOW (New Original Word)
My "hometown" was a simmering to flaming polyglot of languages, accents, dialects, mores and morals, religions and nativities. Irish, Italian, black, WASP and not, Protestant sects, Catholic, Jewish, Quaker, Christian Scientist, agnostic, and atheist. Boston embraced fine arts to funky, classical to soul, mafia to mainstream, gangs to grandeur, street toughs to sailors, fishermen to First Families. Its enticements ranged from the venerated mansions of Beacon Hill with their elitely stand-offish ("The Lodges speak only to the Cabots and the Cabots speak only to God") residents to the crazy, warm streets and shops of Little Italy, where then and now a tall papier mache Madonna is pulled while throngs celebrate in every tongue from perfect English to classical Italian and affix waving dollars onto her body as it passes, while vendors hawk spicy sausages, sauces and breads from the teeming, steaming sidewalks."You don't own me/ I'm not just one of your many toys/ You don't own me Don't say I can't go with other boys/ Don't tell me what to do/ And don't tell me what to say/ Please when I go out with you/ Don't put me on display/ ...I'm young, and I love to be young/ I'm free, and I love to be free/ To live my life the way I want/ To say and do whatever I please...."
My grandfather's family settled in Hartford, Connecticut, although he was born in Raleigh, North Carolina. They were middle-class workers, his sisters becoming teachers and he a salesman of upscale office supplies. Offered a football scholarship to an Ivy League college, he turned that down in favor of his goal: making a fortune through intelligent hard work which he did, twice. He was what my grandmother called "a man's man" who enjoyed the companionship in sports and games and conversation of other men and was, additionally, tolerantly civil, flattering and supportive of women. He taught me to play golf and bridge, his favorite games, understand newspaper stock market pages and make wise investments, and was demonstratively affectionate, easy-going and humorous. He enjoyed showing me off to his friends, called me "Sunshine," and liked, unfortunately, to tickle me until I screamed for mercy sometimes. Even in his late 70s and dying of pancreatic cancer, but still mobile, he liked to chase my grandmother around their two-bedroom, two-bath condominium apartment, while she murmurred, "Oh, Harold!"
My grandmother's only sibling, a very beloved brother named Malcolm, died in Colorado at age 16 of yellow fever. To her dying day, Marjorie May never forgave her father for taking him there. In nearly every old New Jersey photograph, Malcolm -- dressed as Little Lord Fauntleroy -- is holding his baby sister's hand and looking quixotic, protective and manly. She was educated, surrounded with servants, by private tutors and schools. Once, when I implied that she planted and worked growing up in her own extensive flower gardens, she looked at me in horrified disbelief and said, "Oh no, Jeannette. I just designed them. The gardeners did the rest." During her junior-senior summer break, she traveled with some classmates and professors, throughout Europe to cultural highspots, keeping a detailed and extant daily journal, and graduated the following spring from Vassar with a gentlelady's grades in humanities, most particularly English Literature.
Her father gave her a car very early and, along with two maiden paternal aunts, supported her in a mid-town eastside Manhattan apartment until she finally married at age 30. I think she was having too much fun, being attractive and adventurous, to settle down, but it's evident from photos that she and my handsome, middle-class grandfather were very much in love, that he totally "swept her off her feet." Her aunts were amongst the nation's first businesswomen, working in Wall Street and becoming very successful investors, most particularly in copper mining ventures. Her father was involved in that business and also became a lawyer and Third Degree Mason in and around Denver, where he finally died, a popular and respected citizen, in 1921.
My mother, an only child, also grew up in a liveried and accoutred luxury of private schools and tutors with travel between residences in Newton Highlands MA, Manhattan, and family holdings in rural New Jersey. When my grandfather lost his self-made fortune during the stock crash preceding the Great Depression, one of my great-great aunts supported them, copper not having succumbed, including maintaining their residence and his membership in Brae Burn Country Club. In the late 70s to early 80s, mother blasted and blew her portion of inherited investments to kingdom come in a gleeful explosion of rarified elegance. (My grandfather had said years earlier, "There's not enough money in the world for you, Dorothy.") She retained the large parchment engraved with a crest above the family tree tracing ancestors back to Charlemayne, a fecund French king with many progeny, royal and not, through the generations that succeeded him.
A carefully saved and fragile letter dated 1816 sent from England berates a son with motherly guilt for abandoning his family to the wilds of exploration in savage America, recounting illnesses and longing needs for his company back home. Another, dated somewhat later, expresses exquisite love and concern for his children from a father as he recounts hardships and misfortunes in business and health, preparing them with instructions for his impending death soon from illness. A yellowed paper traces the American branch of my family tree through the mid-19th century, and there's unused fractional currency from the Civil War, when paper money replaced metals needed for armaments to equip and fortify Union armies and encampments.
My father's parents immigrated to America before World War II from the Black Forest region of Germany. Those natives had immigrated generations earlier from northern Italy. As a result, their features, and mine, included dark ("olive") skin, hair and eyes, and a figure inclined to be pear-shaped in the wrong direction. Separated cross-country by divorce in the summer of 1945, my father saved, among many others, a baby photo of me in a playpen, pushing against the bars with one arm stretched through them, reaching for something on the floor and with a demon-determined look in my eyes. Whatever it was, I wanted it and I was going to get it. It was mine. He died May 14, 2008, from complications of Alzheimer's Disease and general bodily deterioration at age 87 in a St. Petersburg, Florida hospital room.
An accountant all of his life and a disabled Air Force veteran of WWII, he once owned a yacht, which he learned to dislike, loved to play in a bowling league, owned a successful artifical rock building and remodeling company and a mountaintop summer home in Pisgah Forest, North Carolina, and fathered by his second wife two other estranged children whom I've never met or corresponded with -- a girl who became a successful union Hollywood makeup artist and looks very much like me in photos, and a boy who became a drummer in bands and later a Colorado salesman. The plane accident which handicapped him in 1943 was a night mission within the United States. The aircraft crashed on a remote Northwestern mountaintop, scattering him and his buddies on the ground in various stages of distress and disrepair. His back was broken in seven places, so he couldn't move to help his buddies as they moaned and cried and died. Only one other survived, and they kept in touch off and on over the years. He was hospitalized for about a year thereafter, including psychiatric care, and given an honorable discharge with benefits for his injuries. His beloved older brother lived and died in Connecticut, and a sister settled in Western states. My father and his third wife were married for 50 years until his death. In one photo, when he was courting my mother, he looks very sexy and full of himself in black leather, lounging rakishly and with a grin against an old coupe parked on the street. Other photos show my mother looking willowy and dreamy-eyed in high heels with straps, flaring, swirling skirts and fur boas, her longish, thick, wavy dark hair cascading around her neck and shoulders. Sometimes, she's wearing gloves. Dust to dust. R.I.P.
During my first winter in Newton Center, my grandparents vacationed as usual for the winter months in Miami Beach and The Keys, leaving me in my mother's care, and that of the housekeeper on weekdays. One evening, mother pulled my playpen very close to the dining table, set her place with dinner, and then rose to get something she forgot. Leaving me alone, she returned to the kitchen while I stretched up for a steaming cup of coffee within my reach. Mother always blamed this breach of responsiblity on me; however, there's a reason small children and babies aren't allowed generally near or to play with matches, which is that they don't know or understand the concepts of "hot" and "burn." A stay in the hospital for treatment of second degree ones left me alive and with no scars. The doctor said that was because mother had covered me head and shoulders with cold cream immediately. So you could say my first near-death experience -- other than the trauma of 24 hours of labored delivery under a later outlawed anesthetic called "twilight sleep" which caused "blue babies" for some -- was at the age of around 16 months.
Earlier, in attempts to induce labor, my mother and grandmother had driven a car of that time over rocky, bumpy roads of California hill country to jostle me out of the amniotic paradise I was apparently enjoying and into the harsh, separatist realities of individualized existence on planet Earth. It's possible that mother suffered afterwards from what is now called "post-partum depression." Letters from my father to my grandmother after our return from the hospital noted that he allowed her to sleep all that she seemed to need while he worked full-time and took care of the apartment and me whenever he was able to be home in Los Angeles. That is a pattern mother continued intermittently throughout her lifetime -- retiring to a darkened room to lie generally with one forearm over her forehead for hours at a time. For a few decades she was diagnosed with hay fever, although it was of such a neurotic kind that even glass flowers in a museum would set her eyes to running and her nose to sneezing. Then one day she wanted to have a Persian cat and it basically disappeared. When I asked her once where heaven and hell were, she said that they're right here on Earth, and when I asked her where God lives, she said that God is everywhere. One of her favorite analogic stories during my childhood was that in hell each person is chained to a long fork at a sumptuous buffet but they all starve to death agonizingly because they can't get the forks into their mouths, while in heaven every one feeds every one else so nobody goes hungry and it isn't an issue how long or short the forks are.
As a toddler, I was very inquisitive and determined to 'do my own thing.' Loving to climb stairs, later trees, and furniture, mother said she found me once sitting contentedly and interestedly on top of our refrigerator. And took me down. I'm sure I was observing things. Later, there were the joys of toilet training. I really wanted to grow up and be independent and cried inconsolably for around an hour once because I didn't make it to the bathroom in time. I also wanted to choose my own clothes for buying and wearing, but rarely had an opportunity to do so. Mother very much enjoyed shopping and hung my next day's outfit to be worn on the wire holder of a wall lamp in my bedroom.
My grandmother was a well-educated and regarded painter of portraits and landscapes in oil, as well as drawings mostly in charcoal. Every so often she had catered shows and receptions in Boston with cucumber sandwiches and her paintings hung on the walls in several rooms. Invitees milled around and sat on upholstered couches and chairs talking with each other and her. Around the house, she did what she called "light dusting," but always explained that she wasn't "a scrubber." She cooked our breakfasts and dinners, including every Friday what she called "ought suppers," composed of stews or soups or casseroles comprised of what was leftover that week in the refrigerator and which she loved creating. I was less than enthusiastic about some of the offerings but had to eat all that was in my bowl or on my plate or go without dessert and to my room, which fortunately I adored because all my fun stuff was there and I didn't have to listen to or participate in the boring discussions of the grownups.
Twice a week, we had dairy products left at the back door from whatever my grandmother had ordered during the previous delivery. Milk came in glass quart bottles which were left out to be recycled as they became empty. There was a built-in disposal bucket for household vegetable waste at the bottom of the stairs by the flower gardens that encircled the house. Gardeners maintained the large rectangular flower garden at the back and the circular one surrounding a stone birdbath to the side in front of the two-car garage, as well as short boxwoods that half-circled the property and taller, fuller evergreens against the house. All of the flowers were annuals, their design placement each year decided by my grandmother. There were perennial rhodedendrons to the east side in front of evergreen and deciduous trees. During New England winters, a local boy would be paid to shovel the long walk from the north-facing front door down to the road and sliding down it on packed snow and ice with snowdrifts sometimes four feet high to each side was an exciting experience.
Very consciencious about budgeting, my grandmother allocated ten dollars a week to groceries for a family of three adults and one child and kept religious track of every penny she spent each day and where it went. Every year, she and my grandfather poured individually over huge hard-bound catalogues on the latest Oldsmobile (hers) and Cadillac (his, earlier Packard) automobiles to order the models and colors they wanted.
Every night, after jumping from the area rug to my mattress, thereby avoiding being pulled by my feet into the dark, swirling vortex underneath it by devils who lived down there, my grandmother made up the next sequel of her stories about the rabbits Huffy, Fluffy and Puffy, two sisters and a brother, and their adventures in the garden. After saying, "Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep; If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take," she'd then crack the windows up about an inch to let in healthy night air, regardless of temperature, turn out the lights, and close the door to my bedroom. I would try to stay awake to catch my dolls in their two-story house waking up, as I knew they did every night, to live their lives surreptitiously without my knowing what they really did and how they interacted with each other. But I always fell asleep before they got up and started moving about, which frustrated me somewhat.
Early in the mornings, because breakfast was at 7:00 sharp (dinner always at 6:00 p.m.), she would open the door, snap the shades up, and call out, "Rise and shine!" Never a morning person even as a child, I would try to pretend I didn't hear her, remembering that again the dolls had gotten away with their very private endeavors. My grandmother would pull back the blankets and sheet and there would be nothing left for me to do but open my eyes, sit up, and jump from the bed to the rug (see explication above of evil space underneath it) to retrieve my bathrobe and follow her down the stairs to the dining room table, all set with linens and silver, everyday china and crystal, where I would sit erectly, correctly in my chair with my back not touching its and my hands folded softly in my lap, until it was time for me to say grace, "God bless this food which now we take to do us good for Jesus' sake, Amen," pick up a piece of silverware to begin eating and engage, between well-swallowed bites with my mouth closed and barely moving, in whatever pleasant conversational topic my grandmother had prepared for us four.
Being sick, within reason, wasn't all bad. I didn't have to get dressed up or go to school or any other classes or practice anything, and warmed orange juice or milk were delivered regularly to my bedside along with other home remedies like warm water bottles, more blankets, fruits and other healthy foods, books to read or be read to from, and quiet games to play, usually in wide and near-flat cardboard boxes. Not a lot of moaning was allowed (this is New England) but genteel warnings of dire distress and immanent demise could be communicated creatively in pursuit of more comfort stuff. Those were also the days when physicians, who were not usually specialists but family doctors known and called upon for years within families and closeby communities, regularly made house calls for serious possibilities like measles and mumps or whooping cough (which I never had). Sore throats -- treated with honey, molasses and lemon juice combined into a glass -- most usually were precursors to bad colds or "germs." I don't recall anyone then ever even mentioning "the flu" as a possibility. Most of these events occurred while my bedroom was a large room off a third-floor "attic" hallway, and there were large dollhouses in particular to distract from whatever symptoms plagued my generally healthy body. Sitting on the floor or walking barefoot were never allowed as it was implied that bad things might be living and germinating there, but we had a lot of comfortable "throw rugs," quite a few of them orientals heritage and somewhat new. Margaret, an "old maid" during an era when that term was commonly applied to older women who'd never married or born young, probably didn't like children generally and me in particular whom she believed to be spoiled, and could not be persuaded to participate in any nurturing activities, illness or not, to further what might become my developing brattiness if not held in check by her, and my mother. The doctor was efficiently kind, ascertained generally oral temperatures, measured pulse beats, and wore a stethoscope hanging from around his neck and shoulders. His black leather medicine bag contained common necessities like special bandaging and antiseptics as well as a few all around esoteric medications. In that location a scary devil in bright red flannel long underwear lived under the bed, although mother didn't believe me. The comings and goings entailed by illness kept him for the while at bay.
Back through the generations, my family never owned slaves, although a small percentage in New England did while it was legal, nor employed indentured servants. They treated their staff, when they had any or many, humanely and kindly. If my living family was representative, which it probably was these being generally learned behaviors, employees were paid prevalent going rates or a little better with gifts and special bonuses occasionally for their diligent labors and amenability. Honesty, trust and reliable skills were requisites to continuing employment; my grandmother kept the same ones for years until they outgrew their abilities to work outside their own homes. She tolerated, I believe with restrained curiosity and sometimes delight, a certain degree of latitude in appearance and personal anomalies. They weren't objects in any sense, but individuals who became known tolerantly and thoughtfully through active inquiry and observation. She was a manager, however subtly. Amongst the early family settlers, of course, there was some hardship physical and emotional, as well as financial which precluded the hiring of "help," or even effective professional medical attention on occasion. That legacy of stalwartness and self-reliance in adversity was expected and nurtured through times of abundance and calm for the days they would be truly needed again. They'd survived family turbulence and dissension, financial ascendance and panic and depression, bank and business failures personally and nationally, and the march of technology and invention, as well as two world wars and quite a few others less extensive but still harrowing. All, including the women, were well trained and capable in fishing and hunting, horticulture and preserving, mending and making do, as well as enjoying sophistocated and educated luxury most thoroughly, perhaps as their due for having made it through the worst of times occasionally to those much more welcome and pleasurable.
It was held to be rude to discuss money in any way in polite conversation, appallingly brutish to inquire the cost of any item publically or bring those delicate subjects up while dining anywhere. Financial intricies were matters kept very private in generally hushed tones -- unless mother and my grandfather were involed when her wailings and his determined,exasperated low shouting in reaction could be overheard from the top of the stairs and through second story railings. In later years I felt uncomfortably disadvantaged in financial transactions, personal and professional, necessary to maturity due to that childhood lack of training and exposure in successful negotiation of monetary matters. The menus at Brae Burn Country Club's restaurant showed no prices, except I expect to my grandfather who signed all the cheques. Public upscale commercial dining establishments offered similar arrangements.
At the time I joked that if our house was bombed or a hurricane hit us (two actually made it that far north as I was growing up in Newton Centre), my ever-poised and self-collected grandmother would be calm and reliable in handling the new and unexpected chaos as if she had just been through the same thing yesterday, it was nothing special, and she knew exactly what to do, which she would most likely. Raised to follow proper etiquette at home and in company with my family but accepted after maturity as loving and loveable if a bit "off-beat," I was allowed then without comment or correction to sit on the antique heritage Queen Anne chairs cross-legged Indian-style, legs and feet hidden under the monogrammed damask tablecloths, while dining in (but not out). Once, while visiting on Florida's Galt Ocean Mile, we were sitting having a formal dinner in my grandmother's condo overlooking the pool, lights of Fort Lauderdale, intracoastal and the Atlantic scenery. She always held herself very consciously and correctly whether standing, walking, or sitting and in any situation and environment. I doubt if her back ever touched the back of a dining chair, for instance. On that occasion, the Queen Anne she was sitting on suddenly broke, one of the legs giving out, and she went catapulting to the wall-to-wall carpeted floor. But she never changed position or the expression on her face as she disappeared smoothly under the table top. I had a laughing fit at the sight of it, but my mother was more practical immediately and got her into the bedroom where she soothed on lotions, rubbed her back and worried about whether she'd broken anything, saying in the process, "Jeannette!!! [Get a grip here!!!]" My grandmother was all right, if a little bruised temporarily, and that is a good example of my mother taking efficent and effective care of her when needed and without asking.
We had a housekeeper Mondays through Fridays from 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. Her name was Margaret. She was unmarried, slim and middle-aged, had a very large wart toward the right on her chin with a few long hairs growing out the sides and a grumpy disposition. One of her jobs was to prepare my lunch, most frequently peanut butter and marshmallow creme, jelly and cream cheese, or tunafish on white bread, every day. Once I talked Brenda -- my best and closest in terms of secrets and escapades, grade through high school, adopted Quaker friend -- into coming home, a 15-minute walk, with me at noon for a sandwich. Margaret, in a huff, turned her away and told me resolutely that she was not paid to feed anybody but me. We were not what you would call good friends.
Sometime after that, I saw a television show depicting a well-off family and their maid doing various chores. The next morning, I told Margaret that, as the maid, it was her job, not mine, to make my bed up. A lot of loud chaos ensued. That evening my grandmother sat down gently on the side of my bed and explained carefully that it was politically incorrect to call Margaret a maid, that she was the housekeeper and I would have to apologize to her because we needed her efficient and compliant services and that, yes, it was my job to make my bed daily and change the sheets weekly, putting the top one on the bottom, folded with hospital corners, a fresh one on the top, and the dirty one down the laundry chute, where it would pile up with other dirty things in one room of the basement when once a week Margaret would wring them through the washer, scrubbing them first on a rough metal and wood board if necessary, hang them up with clothes pins on the lines strung out in yet another room, and iron all of them, including the underwear.
My grandmother, in the process of instilling the value and responsibility of heritage and wealth, including charity and active concern for those less fortunate by birth or circumstance, expressed particular pride in our Welch heritage, saying that Celtic tribe was a sturdy, rugged and steadfast, enlightened and ancient people. I share that view and fascination with their, to me, unpronouncable, aged and living language with its unique alphabet in symbol and sound, maintained over the ages of invasion and subjugation, disallowance and dismissal. It is also home to one of the greatest poets and writers of all time, Dylan Thomas, still studied by mystified enthusiasts and seekers of meaning beyond ordinary word, utterance and sentence structure. Personally, my grandmother always adopted foreign orphans with whom she corresponded enthusiastically and provided financial support beyond what was expected through CARE, her favorite organization, as well as sending presents through the mails.
She was also a long-time member of the League of Women Voters and contributed reasonably to whatever was her current church. An interested lover of worldwide religions and cultures, she left me, along with many other things, a bronze statue of a meditative Buddha. Being only nominally Christian, she acquired quite of bit of oriental furniture and art during her later years. Her favorite Protestant religion was Christian Science, and she was a great admirer of Mary Baker Eddy, its founder, and the concept of "mind over matter," a devotion I share and which helped me survive various incursions and invasions over subsequent years. She was also active in her political party, Republican, and became alarmed at the spread of Communism with its Godlessness, anti-Americanism, church and icon destructions, stalags and tyranny, military buildup, and expansionist intentions of mind and land. In protest she joined the John Birch Society, a sometimes paranoid organization which tended to find Reds and fellow-travelers under nearly every bed, and, as a local leader, held regular meetings in our house, recruiting friends and neighbors of all ages to the cause with film, literature, discussion, and letter-writing.
My friends were very diverse: Jews, Catholics, African-Americans, many denominations of Protestantism, even a few atheists. Some went to parochial or private schools, as I did twice. Home schooling wasn't legal then, and public attendance was mandatory. My friends' families ranged from working poor to very wealthy; extraordinarily well-educated, cosmopolitan and sophistocated to minimally grounded in the basics; politically right-wing or conservative to liberal or radical; and "nouveau riche" to "old money." My family, along with quite a few others, was considered the latter, which looked down on the former as not having "real class" in their genes, but having to acquire a coating of it, superficially and profoundly meaninglessly. It was a true "melting pot," except we all maintained our unique identities, interacting well usually, although occasionally friction over a specific issue would cause disruption and retrenchment, especially if our parents got involved.
As a child, my mother read books out loud to me, frequently classics, in small doses which I enjoyed and looked forward to. However, when she chose Mark Twain's The Prince and The Pauper life took a decidedly terrifying turn. I identified with the characters, as ever maybe in part, began having nightmares and became terrified of something similar happening to me because I loved my life and family just as it was. Reassurances that it was "just a story" did nothing to calm me and, in the interests finally of quelling rising hysteria and alarm, she closed that book permanently. At least until many years later when she began to insist for self-protective reasons and with the odd criminal complicity of neighboring others, that I was someone other than me, a very well-documented and reasonably well-known identity, as fatalic myth and fantasy took ascendance in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.
Some of the wealthiest people in the relatively small town of Newton Centre lived in old mansions on spacious grounds surrounding Crystal Lake, within easy, every-evening walking distance of my home after dinner with my mother and grandmother, half an hour after eating to make sure the food and drink were digested healthily. The lake iced over in wintertime, skates were rented or owned, and we learned how to execute figure-eights after lacing ourselves up and gliding out in leggings, scarves, heavy jackets and mittens. During briefer summer days an area was bouyed and netted off for swimming with a lifeguard on his stand and a good-sized platform for diving. Rumored to be the richest of the rich there, one family composed of only two older sisters and a girl our age whom nobody knew -- she must been sent to private schools and kept from the rest of our company -- lived in an aged and kind-of creepy Tudor-style gabled house by the water. When seldom encountered close-up or at a distance, they were always dressed in very plain clothes, nearly rags really, and never associated by person or organization with anyone the rest of us knew. The totally mysterious "sisters of the lake" stayed to each other and kept their money to themselves.
My grandparents kept a well-stocked liquor cabinet in the dining room with standard cordials and alcohols. "Gramps" preferred Scotch and my grandmother bourbon. Mother was eclectic, although gin and tonic was her usual choice for quite awhile. There were brandies and Grand Marnier, my grandfather's treasured after-dinner drink, which were just for special occasions. Wine wasn't a family standard or favorite. At 4 p.m. every afternoon barring catastrophe, my grandparents had one cocktail each with peanuts: old-fashioned (bourbon, water, a pinch of sugar, and a long-stemmed red cherry) for "Nana" and scotch and water "on the rocks" for my grandfather. We only ate steak once or twice a year: a huge slab of porterhouse carved into serving pieces from a silver platter by my grandfather whose favorite meat, and the Christmas traditional fare, by far was ham, and any pork product including bacon every morning with scrambled eggs, toast, orange juice and coffee with cream and sugar. Mother liked to make French toast, and "Nana" eggs sunny-side up. "Grandpa" was very attached to orange marmalade, always kept in an intricately cut heavy crystal bowl with a monogrammed silver lid and its own specifically designed silver spoon resting in the slotted place for it.
Because she worked, mother seldom cooked at her parents' house, but we both did when living elsewhere. We all ate shellfish, except New England clam chowder, exclusively at restaurants and in the Maine house and its environs. Steamed long-necked clams were by far my favorite, and I always ordered a bucket-full, although I've also loved regular fresh clams and quohogs on the halfshell too. Later, I learned to adore, and sometimes assemble, Oysters Rockefeller and Florentine, stuffed baked clams, escargots, and mussels from fresh to baked. Conch is also excellent, and I became adept once at fixing fresh squid Italian-style too. For awhile later, we feasted on langastinos, small lobster-like crustaceans, and many years still after that I enjoyed crawfish fixed Cajun-style. "Gramps" loved swordfish. Mother later preferred snapper. I liked dolphin steaks, which I don't believe come from the mammal, our talking friends, of that name, and on the West Coast especially loved salmon. During my childhood desserts were canned fruits, puddings including tapioca (which I dislike to this day), ice cream or sherbet. For special occasions, "Nana" made a favorite bread pudding with hard sauce and for holidays another favorite, mince pie. Mother fixed stuffed dates, which are also great, rolled in confectioners' sugar. On special occasions "on the town," we ate splendiferous concoctions like baked Alaska, cherries jubilee, many-layered tortes and other French pastries. A few decades later, fondue became popular and I had my obligatory dish over a candle for melting worldwide gourmet cheeses to blend and dip chunks of good breads into with selectively chosen, usually white and frequently German or Scandanavian, wines accompanying the productions in their intriguingly shaped and labeled sizes. Later attempts at concocting tastily flaky pie crusts were never terrifically successful, but "from scratch" creative fresh fruit cobblers, cakes and breads were usually a hit. One of my most prized discoveries was learning how to make Yorkshire pudding. Previously, I and my grandfather had only, and particularly, loved popovers poured and baked into their own especially deep muffin pans in all the egg-y magic of their puffing suddenly over the edges in buttery ecstasy.
Only the two daughters of our neighbors across the street were allowed in my grandparents' home, except for annual birthday parties, but I could visit with everyone and did very, very frequently thanks to the warm welcoming of other families. Part of the reason for that level of exclusivity may have been the numerous valuable, and sometimes fragile and/or breakable heirloom to new house furnishings my grandparents owned, and they did keep cash somewhat hidden, too. Among other entertainments, those two daughters and I were allowed to go through my grandmother's third-floor clothes room with its racks of older hanging dresses and two full round-topped steamer trunks. We would dress up in petticoats and flowered silk, sewn with bones (stays) at the ribs and waist, and trailing the floors as we strutted and strolled, giggling and stumbling sometimes in our heels, down the stairs through the rooms and halls. For two of the festive and extravagant birthday parties, my mother hired a costumed clown and then a tuxedoed magician to perform for us arrayed sitting on the living room floor -- after brightly colored balloons and streamers, sandwiches and cake served on everyday china with sterling silver pieces, and presents unwrapped and opened within the formal dining room.
On very special occasions involving guests, we used my grandmother's heirloom Limoges china with its thick 14-karat gold and colorfully flower-enameled rims. Her sterling silver, which we used daily, included such unique pieces as six place settings of consumme, grapefruit, iced tea, ice cream and demitasse spoons, oyster forks, steak and butter knives, in addition to beautifully engraved and designed serving pieces. All were monogrammed with "mHm," her maiden name initials, as were the linens. In case of too much company, she held in abeyance my mother's six place settings of sterling and one belonging to one of her two aunt's, also all monogrammed with the appropriate maiden name initials. A few pieces belonged to her mother and grandmother, too. Every year, family and individual portrait pictures were taken and artfully matted and framed by a professional Boston photographer who came to the house and posed us, with our dog Mimi, a Boston Bull Terrier when she was around, in formal clothes.
Almost all the house furniture, it goes without saying, was thick mahogany polished and intricately carved, including the folding, flower-painted Queen Anne card table. There may have been a little dark maple here and there. Veneer was like using paper plates at the dining table -- an unmentionable, at least without a barely-concealed disdainful sniff, impossibility like glass, or, horrors!, plastic used in place of crystal. Or silver-plate of which my grandmother was slightly abashed to own a few inherited family pieces. Gloves were kidskin, purses leather or silk, and nearly all linens were hand-embroidered, or loomed, or stitched. And monogrammed, of course. Reupholstering involved the ritual of an artisan visiting the house with sample bolts of heavy satin and velvet designs for selecting that year's chosen discernment. Personal engraved stationary sets of letter and note papers with envelopes were chosen with similar serious care and elan for color and printing style. Rugs were native, frequently antique orientals from the East, China and India particularly, and Sarouk was most highly prided and prized.
Oddly amidst all this subtly haughty class act, my grandmother tended to buy all her clothes from Filene's famed discount basement and all her shoes in droves from discount franchiser Thom McCann. When MacDonald's began to proliferate, it was one of her favorite restaurants. That and "high tea" at Schrafft's in Boston and mid-town Manhattan and the cocktail hour with grand pianist at The Plaza on Fifth Avenue and The Park. Those brazen revolts against taste and etiquette of "the ruling class" were met with disgusted contempt by my mother who never failed to note how the mighty had digressed and fallen. In response, my grandmother became adept at a kind of stony squinched expression of nose and mouth with narrowed eyes over stayed body held firm and erect. It's very much on display now in some old photographs. She owned half the Newton houses, all of the Maine one, the vast majority of furnishings, the largest and occasionally only shares of stocks and bonds and normal savings, hired and fired and managed with dignity and quietly efficient structure all the household help, paid half the monthly expenses for all, and kept the household accounts. In another ritual, she presented formally those detail documents to my grandfather monthly for explaining the varying amount he owned as his half of the upkeep for "a smooth-running household." Mother, of course, had a "free ride," and I was just a child, adopted financially by my dear, amused, and amusing "Nana" and "Grandpa" for that time. Meantime, my mother's "Oh, Mother!" echoed frequently throughout the house and made her the disabusedly plaintive recipient of, among other things, a silver plate boudoir set and used full-length fur coat, which called for still more "Oh, Mother!" repetitions of high class despondency. My grandmother in determined direction and intention continued regardless to wash out her own (silk) lingerie by hand and do all the "light dusting" needed for the household to stay reasonably clean of small debris and detritus.
My mother, and less aggressively grandparents, were of the somewhat de rigeur New England school of "excel at everything" with a performance twist on the football adage, "You'll show up for practice and the show unless you died, or your whole family did." During the school year, that required demonstrable excellence in academic classes, church, school sports, and the arts of ballet, toe, tap, piano, acrobatics, and modeling. For summer breaks, my family said in so many words, "A vacation! What a perfect occasion to excel in every other sport ever invented by humankind," which ranged over the years from boating to archery to fencing. Diving and swimming championships were just taken for granted. We lived by the ocean, didn't we? And everyone who's anyone knows how to dress and sit a horse properly. It was a very busy childhood, even in relaxing.
It was a book-ish family in a book-ish era and place, and I learned to read and write early in that atmosphere when reading was always a desired and acceptable activity to be allowed and encouraged. Amidst all the classes and lessons and practice and performances, home and public libraries, I was called "a bookworm" and loved nothing much better than curling into the soft corner of a couch or my bed and drifting mesmerized into other worlds and lives from any era, imaginary or not, hiding my current selection frequently under the covers to pull out again after formalities of bedtime ritual, and follow heroes and heroines, knaves and scoundrels through their triumphs and travails until my eyes wouldn't stay open any longer and burned or watered with the effort to do that by a small bedside lamp. Forbidden to read or purchase comic books (or watch cartoons on television), I snuck out to the homes of friends who kept them and fantasized through those colorfully thrilling pages for hours at a time, the usual Superman and Wonder Woman being my favorites but there were so many and all were entrancing, perhaps especially so for being disallowed. There were also, of course, magazines -- most particularly Life, Look, Readers' Digest, Seventeen, Glamour -- and the daily Boston morning and evening newspapers. From an adolescent fascination with romance novels, I graduated to more determinedly historical ones in preference and later to biographies and autobiographies, as well as political theory, philosophy and analysis, the New York Times and Washington Post(especially Sunday editions), New York Review of Books, National Geographic, the Smithsonian, Vogue and Vanity Fair.
Together or separately, the three females in the house played everything from classical duets to old ballads (my grandfather's favorites) to popular songs from current musicals on the spinet upright against the interior living room wall. That room had built-in bookshelves on either side of the fireplace, with its mantle holding tall sterling silver matching candlesticks and artful crystal and glass, holding a wide variety of books from classical to modern and including a set of leather-bound Encyclopedia Britannica's. In addition to private lessons at the New England Conservatory of Music, a tutor came weekly to the house for quite awhile schooling me in octaves, keys, scales, and the setting and use of a metronome to keep the composer's intended beat. I also had private lessons in popular piano and singing from a short, vivacious and intent Jewish man in his Boston audio-and-video-equipped studio. One time he arranged for me to sing and play piano on television and told me to hold the last note I sang for as long as I could. So I did, until the television crew cut the feed and someone came over to say something was a little amiss and that I could let go of that note anytime I was ready. All my ballet and toe lessons and performances were through Virginia Williams, who during that time started her still extant professional troupe. My tap dancing teacher and most of my fellow students and professionals were African-Americans, so I learned very early that skin color was immaterial to humanity and performance. My lessons in acrobatics were from a thin man with a studio in a kind of seedy part of town, where I learned on his long mats, sort of in the way my grandfather later taught me to swim, how to defy God and gravity with "airs above the ground" in running doubles and triples and twirls.
The Boston Pops Orchestra performances, to which my family had season tickets, were held on a very large, raised stage with patrons seated at little linen-covered tables served by costumed waiters. Summer performances were held in a large dome on the park by the Charles River opposite Cambridge. Popular tunes from musicals and icons like Gershwin were played, as well as light classical sonatas and waltzes, patriotic hymns and marches. The musicians were part-time, paid professionals and sometimes there was a singer or chorus, too. The Boston Ballet Company also performed on a similar stage in a nearby building to large audiences in the sets of parallel seats disappearing back into the back of the auditorium and the front lobby. Costuming and cosmetics were major enterprises, costly and with seamstresses and makeup artists frantically encircling participants and making last-minute adjustments just as the curtain would rise with Virginia Williams giving her final exhortations to keep to the routines and smile no matter how much it hurt or what went wrong live.
My grandmother, a francophile who'd spent her "junior year abroad" while attending Vassar College -- and had the two large steamer trunks with hanger rods and drawers full of old, boned dresses and lace-and-linen petticoats to prove it -- to graduate as a Literature major, loved the French language and culture, both of which she found superior to any other including Italian and German. British was okay but too stilted, distant and formal for her nature and tastes. Her mother was a Goodenough (pronounced good-e-know) of somewhat recent French descent and her daughter became fluent early in that romance language. As time passed with few to converse with, her lexicon diminished without loss of grammatical construction. Partly to keep up that skill and endearment, my grandmother spoke it with me fairly frequently, encouraging comprehensive understanding and appropriate response as well as spontaneity. We also played and sang French songs on the piano as duets in addition to my grandfather's Irish favorites, my mother's show tunes, and classical pieces familiar and fond to all. Always desirous of my grandmother's comfort and approval, I later changed my handwriting style -- which I'd perfected with diligent care and concentration as flowing and feminine during junior high school years -- because she had trouble reading the slanted words. I've only used it for official signatures now for many, many years. Since it relies partly on context to discern some letter differences, perhaps she advised me well on that too. And I did learn to appreciate French linguistics, history and civilization as well, the sounds of the language as they roll and wrap around a meaning. Latin classes enabled me to read, but not speak or understand, Italian sufficiently to get by with sheet music lyrics, but I couldn't handle the sounds and grammar of German at all when beginning a college class in my early twenties and dropped it rather summarily. To me, and with apologies to German speakers, it sounds gutteral with a synatx defying sense and the child only a parent could truly adore.
My grandmother and I with our matching luggage packed always boarded for our vacations of various lengths there a train to and from Manhattan's Grand Central Station, that marvellous historic adventure in architecture, exploration and teemingly assorted populace, leaving the organ grinders with their trained monkeys behind on Boston streets for Fifth Avenue vendors of fresh, hot-roasted chestnuts and a taxi to the Barbizon Plaza on Central Park South, her only chosen residence in the City. Cocktails were in the afternoon at The Plaza to the accompaniment of classical pianists on their deeply shiny and darkly grained grand with peanuts and liveried service on linen and china, crystal glasses twinkling under chandeliers the same. With her usual eclectic taste, Macy's was my grandmother's favorite department store. I don't remember our ever shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue or Bergdoff-Goodman's, and dinners were almost invariably and conveniently at the Barbizon hotel. Breakfast was delivered, my favorite of treats, to our room with twin beds on whatever floor we'd gotten that time around to accommodate differing window views. The Park's Tavern On The Green was acceptable for lunches as was a mid-town coin-operated cafeteria famous at the time whose name I've since forgotten. Carnegie Hall had a charming and cozy restaurant also, and we frequented movies in the afternoons as well as smaller shops, galleries and napping, a regular part of any routine anywhere. "People watching" in the Park and elsewhere was also a favored activity. We boarded buses and subways also occasionally. Once in the Barbizon's very formal underground dining room, I ordered Roquefort cheese salad dressing and the waiter brought something pinkish with beige and green-looking lumps instead. Objecting, he explained from his elevated position that that was the way real French Roquefort was prepared. Unconvinced and unimpressed, I demanded my creamy white with chunks of blue-streaked crumbles which he did return to serve, having scraped negligently somewhat the previous profferment from the leaves of various bite-sized greens. In the best restaurants then, waiters and the maitre d' ruled and patrons fell in line or paid for rebellion in learning to behave properly the next time.
Throughout that and other vacations together at the artist colony of Rockport MA and her summer house on Bustins Island ME, my grandmother mentioned occasionally her belief in something she called Eternal Personality, although she never expounded on the concept to me in detail. She had studied in Reno NV for a few years under the fairly reknowned and now-deceased painter Edwin Dawes, whose landscape style reveals and reflects the mysticism he lived and shared with her and others. The paintings, of which we had several, are a little dreamy and hazy with soft shadings of color subtly blending into each other. I can see now in retrospect how individual personalities do survive various environments, atmospheres and viscisitudes over the years of a lifetime, becoming sometimes strong and bright and through others muted, transparent or even buried under layers of force and formality. It's like the real kernel that defines each separate identity, the seed corn that grows the stalk, cobs and "babies," new seeds for planting or consumption.
An analogy on a grand scale might be the first human who ever conceived of the concept of democracy, the "stalk" of that that grew, blossomed, seeded, waned and rooted again through millenia of different civilizations, philosophers and governors, artists and militias, like Indian corn in many colors and flavorings. On another level, our reverence for founding parents like Lincoln, Nightengale, Ross and Washington infuse our lives and nation with meaning and purpose long past their material demise. On a more minute level, the tastes and experiences, values and accomplishments of deceased family members, and sometimes their friends and associates, affect everyday folk whose names will not likely appear on monuments or buildings. Through informal and formal storytelling we keep those Eternal Personalities alive and embedded inside of us in the motions and moments of our day-to-day lives. In addition to the "kernel" that is each one uniquely, we carry those Eternal Personalities forward with us into the present and future as they have been in our pasts and as we constantly memorialize our ancestry. The phenomenal interest in genealogy is evidence of that yearning importance to us in clarifying our own identity and theirs, our shared history of intermingling and change in circumstance and reality, and who we really are or might be.
On the other side perhaps is the "bad seed," the Eternal Personality of harm, tyranny, despotism and depravity also carried throughout millenia in memory, embodiment and history. Cannibals, inquisitors of ingenius torture, mass murderers, all of crime and evil behaviors known, recorded and/or recalled. Cain and Abel, the Biblical good and bad seeds of humanity, are our best known analogy, with bad most ascendant recently partly because of their willingness naturally to transgress normal bounds of accepted and acceptable behaviors and reward each other for that. It isn't their numbers but their methods that defeat us because we can't go where they have no fear of journeying to keep and save our souls. That soul-less Eternal Personality is always amongst us. Another favorite quote of my grandmother is, "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof," meaning, "Don't add to it in any way." There's always a way back for the "good seed" who lose their "moral compass." The song "Amazing Grace" is a beautiful example and rendition of that, popular because it's touched so many minds and hearts with identity and compassion.
During our Christian Science phase, which lasted maybe five years (and was followed by the tract-distributing Evangelical Congregational one, having been preceded by the Baptist one during which I was instructed and finally baptized in a small pool before the altar and lectern, in addition to formal infant christening complete with little printed announcements with a small pink bow affixed at the top some years earlier), my family only took me, or themselves, to medical doctors in extreme emergencies. We ate some unusual organic foods, took vitamin supplements, and sprinkled wheat germ on everything, including milk, in addition to reading and studying Mary Baker Eddy's Science of Mind With Key to the Scriptures. Illness being a manifestation of misalignment with the mind and will of God, we directed our energies and attention inward on prayerfully thoughtful, Biblically-directed correction. I was in my thirties, I think, before I thought to take an aspirin for a headache, and then only after quite a few days of inner-alignment activities. Nothing about that has really changed much, and I very seldom take, or remember to take, medication for anything less dire than pneumonia or tuberculosis. In the Christian Science Sunday School classes, we memorized all the books of the Bible chronologically, in addition to the location and words of key passages. I have remembered them fairly well throughout the years, or at the very least where to locate specific recitations and instructions if I need or want to, usually.
I became familiar with boats -- flat-bottomed, sail, motor, ferry and yacht -- during summers in our Bustins Island Maine retreat, an older home on a hill overlooking Buzzards Bay and sold to my grandmother replete with everything including victrola, Chinese checkers, and a complete set of Bobbsey Twins books. It was heated when necessary by a small woodstove in the living room, lit by kerosene lamps, and the ice truck came around twice a week to deliver large slabs for the box in the pantry cooling foods. Two very large screened drums outside the kitchen window caught rainwater for washing. Drinking water was hauled in buckets from a community well nearby. The only other vehicles were a truck and one family had transported a car there. The island, however, was small enough that we could walk anywhere, including to the one general store to the northeast by the long pier where ferries docked and departed and some private boats of various sizes and locomotion were secured by long thick ropes. A lobsterman, the only person who, along with his wife, lived there year-round, provided fresh lobsters from his submerged traps.
After holding me afloat with two arms while I paddled, one day my grandfather just suddenly threw me in to water over my head. That was the accepted way of learning how to swim. Do it or die, and right away. Thereafter, I learned to dive off "The Rock," a huge precipe in that cove, where we also dug clams by moonlight some nights. Once, I was bitten on the right ankle by a horseshoe crab, which leaves a nasty scar for quite awhile. My grandmother taught me to recognize poisonous snakes and not to be afraid of the rest. For two summers, my mother brought up a teenage girl with us whose main function was to detangle the snarls in my long, curly hair. It took about an hour each day and really hurt as she pulled it determinedly with combs away from my scalp. Shortly thereafter, mother had it cut up to my ears.
We also had a commodious shed, with an outhouse in the back, connected to the house by a covered walkway. Each second floor bedroom had an antique covered chamber pot, and one had a hospital bed. Along the first floor waterside west-facing front was a screened-in porch with huge glass panes to let down in rainstorms and hurricanes. Our neighbor across the dirt road had a piano that he let me play. We didn't have any gardens there, just forest, wildflowers and ferns, and berry bushes native to the island. There were two large old haunted-looking hotels there and a 9-hole golf course at the north end.
Being in a very cold weather zone, most of the trees were very tall and rugged pines. The largest wild animal was probably a squirrel, and there were a lot of chipmunks and butterflies, robins and sparrows, wrens and seagulls. Seals frequented the cold salt waters and once one very large one beached himself to die. Snails and barnacles littered rocks making it uncomfortable to walk barefooted anywhere along the Bay. One afternoon on a crowd excursion in a friend's very large yacht, we got lost at sea in a dense fog and ended up finally on Shebig Island, from whence we were saved by clearing skies. The ferry to and from the mainland ran twice a day and took 30 to 45 minutes with our necessities boarded and stored.
I really learned to steer and handle the rigging of sailboats in two summer camps and love them to this day. They're romantic, sexy, historic, subject to the whims and grace of God and the expertise of their sailors. Back then, we didn't have gas motors in case of calm or calamity, just oars -- and strength. Challenging to learn and master, at least once I was hit broadside by a boom and catapulted into a railing. Ropes snarl and cloth sags. Just when you get it all together, the wind dies. Years later in Jonesborough, I investigated joining a windjammer expedition where passengers worked helpfully with full-time crews, but other events intervened.
My grandmother and mother loved to travel, visiting new and familiar places mostly in neighboring states of New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and Connecticut where my grandfather's relatives lived in and around Hartford. In addition to annual trips to Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Manhattan and Rockport Massachusett's art colony, we once spent a week in Canada at Quebec's Chateau Frontenac along the Saint Lawrence Seaway with its islands, trawlers and smaller ships, and in the bustling, cosmpolitan city of Montreal. Closeby Cape Cod, Provincetown, Kennebunkport, Nantucket Island, Martha's Vineyard and Plymouth Rock were other occasional haunts where we stayed in excellent lodgings and explored historic sites along with mostly seafood restaurant fare and decor. Our neighbors across the street in Newton Centre were the Pearsons with their two daughters and two older sons. I was in love with Teddy, the second oldest, as was nearly every young girl for his dark and manly good looks, humorously friendly personality and sex appeal, but I had a special "in" as our families were close friends and his sisters my regular playmates. The Pearsons owned a rustic summer home amidst forest greenery and near creeks and river in the backwoods of New Hampshire which we visited for extended overnights off and on. On one expedition there, we girls tried fly fishing and I messed up some of Teddy's precious and carefully stored tackle equipment nearly irretrievably -- a true measure of affection and admiration, at that age anyway. His, and their mother, Jessie, was my ideal for that role -- a generously-sized and buxom woman with not much seeming structure to her life and days but lots of warmth and joy and humanity, particularly in her enfolding hugs and the softly inviting bosom that exuded love and comfort to children especially.
My mother always worked as a secretary full-time, mostly for high-tech companies, and frequently sold a variety of products from china to cleaning supplies in the evening with the hope of being financially successful enough to quit her regular employment. She had very good skills in shorthand, typing and office management, standing in for her bosses frequently when they were unavailable. Once, I remember her coming home from work in the evening with blood flooding down her legs, like she was hemorrhaging, but she was okay, just humiliated, and went back to her employment the next day. She taught me how to use a peddle, then electric sewing machine and follow patterns, which we carefully chose, pinned and cut. One spring, she made my blue Easter coat and was very proud of it. On Hallowe'en nights, she always dressed me exotically as a very colorful gypsy from whatever was in our well-stocked home. I always wanted to be something else, but ... that's what I was. No one had ever heard then of poisoning candy for children, would have been totally aghast, and we all came home with paper grocery bags filled to overflowing with goodies from corn candies to lollipops.
In the sixth grade, we all loved Bill, a good-looking, all-American boy. He had a long list of his girlfriends, ranked by preference for which we vied for higher to highest ranking. On Valentine's Day we all were given cards, comparing them amongst ourselves in design and signature to see who received the most excellent and indicative of best honors. He was our first "rock star," a forerunner to Elvis, but much more subdued and upstanding. Our bubbling excitements were to the bemusement and occasional damping down of our room teacher, who didn't quite understand it all, but the highlight of my year was playing "Spin The Bottle" at a private classmate party with it stopping and pointing to Bill. I was the blessed heroine of the evening! Grade school bliss. I'd gotten Bill.
There were several choices available for "charm schools" in acquiring requisite " social graces" during free afternoon hours covering everything from correct ballroom dancing protocols, including "white glove" couture, to serving and sharing hors d'oevres amidst acceptably polite conversation that our family/community might have missed in instilling informally. We did our best for public parlor posture to walk at home with good-sized volumes balanced on our heads. The boys were less enthusiastically amenable and more uncomfortably awkward in going through these paces required and expected of us as "coming of age" rituals to full entree into the very structured world of adults around us in social and business interaction. We "let it all hang out," though, during toboggan rides, where we screamed together into the chill of crystal clear snow days and brittle air down into the wide curves of the sluice in the park, practically dressed in our boots and scarves and woolen hats and gloves, layers of sweaters and protective coats.
Also, and less happily, in the sixth grade my math teacher had to keep moving me forward in the classroom so I could read writing on the blackboard. Finally, mother was called in and told that I'd become near-sighted and needed glasses. My grandmother had considerable difficulty accepting that anything could possibly be wrong with her perfect grandchild. She took me in tow to quite a few of the best opthomologists and optometrists in Boston in their fancy and comfortable offices and shiny equipment to find even one that knew better, upon which she tried to insist, but finally Nana had to admit that none did and I really did require some artificial assistance occasionally to have correct vision. I wasn't supposed to wear the glasses chosen constantly, but just when needed in classrooms and movie theatres, for instance. Glasses were glass then, not plastic, and a little heavy, cutting into each side of the noses upon which they rested also. Later, she took me again to an excellent city ophthomologist to be fitted for contact lenses, but after a fairly uncomfortable office trial period, during which my eyes wouldn't stop watering uncontrollably, the doctor advised that my eyes opened too wide naturally, the size of the lenses required was incompatible with any level of sustainable comfort for me.
Around age 11, some of the girls started wearing bras (brassieres) because they needed them. The rest of us bought them anyway. They were called "training bras," although no one ever made clear what our breasts, such as they were, were in training for. Once, when I bemoaned the plateau area of my chest, mother said, "You'll be glad when you're old," which I didn't find comforting at all at the time. The popularity over ensuing years of padded, push-up, pointed and rounded, lace and see-through bras, as well as girdles and whole-body latex armament, encompassed my couture until finally, with relief and release, came the Women's Liberation Movement and its enchanting suggestion that we discard our brassieres and other undergarments totally. What a great idea! Free! Right down to my natural, God-given body! And proud, happy to be just what I am, finally. Take it or leave it, as a popular saying of the time went. It's me, Me, ME. And liberty, most profoundly, if sometimes secretly. ("Bet you can't guess what I'm not wearing underneath this dress today.") In a partial bow to convention for awhile once, I wore see-through blouses over see-through bras to work just to show that I was, in form at least, following the convention of appropriate professional attire.
For the seventh grade, my mother moved herself and me to a one-bedroom apartment on Beacon Street in Judaic Brookline across from the trolley tracks, convenient for all my downtown practice and performance classes. My grandmother's piano was hoisted into it by professionals from the street through a living room window by heavy ropes, and we rode an antique elevator up from the lobby and down to the sidewalk. Sitting on one of the bedroom twin beds, mother explained one awkward and uncomfortable evening my immanent physical transition from girl to woman and the clinical "birds and bees" details. It all sounded very unlikely, unappetizing and uninteresting, and I wasn't looking forward to it at all. Years later, I read a story on-line about a boy whose mother told him the basics of sex as they were driving down a road, and he said he felt like opening the door and throwing himself to his death out of the car. Not surprisingly given the environment, my first full-time boyfriend and introduction to the determined tussles of adolescent fumblings was with Bernie, who was only half-Jewish ethnically and religiously. He was bar mitzfah'd though that year.
I was the only Gentile in the two-year junior high school there, and nearly the whole town, where I met my first real boyfriend, Bernie, who was half-Gentile and visited our home on afternoons when I was free from other commitments. My best girlfriend and I would sit in her parents kitchen while her mother fed us raw hamburger (add capers and it's called the elegantly classic steak tartare), which I loved, until we were full of it. The school was the best I ever attended anywhere, and I easily earned straight A's, don't think I even tried, all the way through because I loved, was fascinated by, and very involved with all the information and skills available from devoted teachers for their students. It offered and encouraged excellence in everything from Latin (The Iliad) to Geography and worldwide map-making. I also learned how to sew together a felt poodle skirt, popular then, in its well-equipped homemaking classroom, along with baking and ironing. The Debate Club, to which I belonged, argued politics and philosophy. Delis and restaurants with kosher foods from lox to matzo (unleavened bread) and balls (meat) abounded in the area. We moved at the end of the year back to Newton Center because, my mother and grandparents said, I had developed a heavy Yiddish accent, and it was embarassing to take me to the Country Club.
Mother only spanked me as a child once. The educational and social system of Massachusetts and Boston metro didn't believe in or allow corporal punishment generally -- unlike other parts of the country like the South in most instances -- and neither did my grandparents. They must have been out of town or unable to dissuade her. She was angry, upset and embarassed that I hadn't performed adequately, or outstandingly, during a public exhibition. I think it was dance. Saying, "This hurts me more than it hurts you," she pulled my pants down, put me over her lap and hit my bare bottom until I screamed from the pain, cried very agonizingly, and begged for her to stop. But she'd really gotten into it and carried away with the ecstacy of sadistic power. I think she finally just got too tired to continue. Later I thought, "I don't think that hurt you as much as it did me. Why don't we see?" And increasingly refused to comply with performing publicly until quitting completely around age 13. I'd started at three. Instead I devoted myself for awhile to girlfriends and popcorn, gaining in the process quite a bit of weight as well as the joys of free time and entertainment for myself and my company of schoolmates and neighbors.
One of my best friends and a popular date got very dressed up, as we all did, for the excitement and potential romance of our first formal school dance. After much discussion and planning, we launched into our first shavings of leg hairs, a definite sign of maturing womanhood. My friend knicked her calves quite a few times with the razor, drawing blood and creating scratches to which were affixed small pieces of toilet paper to staunch the trickles by her doting mother. Shortly thereafter, during the dance, she began her first menses. And her first truly fancy dress was white, fortunately perhaps with the layers of petticoats popular back then. We died in embarassment and laughter with her as she described the details of getting through it all without detection, we believed, from the boys. Sometimes nature and social roles gang up to defeat us in our public presentations over the years of happenings unrehearsed and unforeseeable. She had to leave the auditorium of course and cried real tears for what she'd been forced to miss.
Later, we all greeted with relief tampons smaller and smaller and ever less detectable in carrying and concealing until I came upon with glee and gratitude ones only two inches long that fit into skirt and dress pockets. We could then just leave as usual for the ladies' rooms with our periods, as they were supposed to be, unremarked, or so we at least believed, by men with whom we weren't intimate personally. Free! Thanks to progress in manufacture and production of "women's hygiene" products.
My mother and grandmother had been of generations that saved and used bulky cloth rags for that purpose affixed with pins and regularly washed out. A monthly ritual for most, but not my mother whose irregularity was legendary and propitious in unfortunate ways being totally unpredictable in time and place. When still later I experienced at the appropriate and average age of 53 the discomforts and disruptions of menopausal deluges and irregularites, as well as hot flashes and sleep pattern disturbances, Virginia's Shenandoah Valley chose amidst it all to inflict in addition an incredulous number of violent criminalities on me and my property so that, in trying to deal with it all, I nearly died and did, at least, become very, very sick to the point of repeated "near death" experiences relayed and related variously throughout ACR and Chameleon with prose and links. It is a place that very certainly hates women and wants any exhibiting natural female characteristics dead and gone permanently.
One teenage winter, mother took me to The Hampshires for a long weekend in a cozy lodge with a friendly bar, lounge and large open stone fireplace. We both had beginning skiing lessons after which she disappeared with one of the instructors. Soon thereafter, I found one of my own within my age range and we exchanged pleasantries and attractions. All of our ski equipment was rented, but we were appropriately garbed following the ritual pre-vacation shopping spree. Our feet and hands got very cold and wet intermittently but we had the inn's blazing fire to warm them by and dry our socks and mittens. The swaying lift chairs and rides to various dropoff stations toward mountaintop were exhileratingly beautiful and a bit scary, and my form on the slopes never improved much beyond a slide followed by an ungraceful and ungracious split on the ice and snow. But I enjoyed it all in a sort of frustrated and unbalanced way as skis, poles and sometimes hats went flying. I was much better at ice skating, and even toboganning. At least, though, I learned a great appreciation for those whose skill at glides and leaps through the air so entrance us during The Winter Olympics, for instance.
Although our home was one of the first in the area to acquire a black and white television, I wasn't allowed to watch it very often, or buy or have comic books either. Life was serious, meant to be productive and studious. Frivolity was not condoned although life offered its various enactments of natural hilarity anyway. One was my proposed article on the list of places I almost lived. Mother had many sequential plans, all seeming possible and real to me and others, for areas to move and most particularly of those was Phoenix Arizona, where she made many concrete arrangements during my sophomore high school year. Yearbooks exchanged with friends at the end of that all bid them and me a fond and sad adieu. Protesting later the mass embarassment of staying put in Newton Centre, I ended up instead spending the next year in academy at way-out Ashburnham and not allowed to come home even on weekends, so in a way I had left. Without a television there too.
At home, I was allowed to watch the evening news relayed by Walter Cronkite, The Ed Sullivan Show (despite its occasional shocks like an Elvis-from-the-waist-up live performance) and some episodes of Mickey Mouse and The Mouseketeers. All the other shows were off-limits which created some social and communicative dysfunction then and later with friends and classmates who reveled in The Little Rascals, Spanky and The Gang, and The Steve Miller Show about which I knew nothing but the little picked up from them. On visits, I devoured friends' comic books which I loved and stayed relatively au courrant with that development. The imposed distances of "monied class," dance and music practices and performances, "places I'd never quite been," private schools and camps, summer home, travels by plane and train, and an enclosed and barricaded cocoon of life knowledge made it quite a wonder that I had good and close peer friends. Thankfully, though, I did amongst the many tolerant and bemused I met on various imposed perigrinations of experience, geography, topography and lifestyle.
From exclusive Brae Burn Country Club -- which didn't even allow Catholics nevermind ethnicities like Italian, unless perhaps they were opera stars, and my close friendship with the daughters of member Vaughan Monroe ("Ghost Riders in the Sky") -- to the honky tonk Boston slum streets and ragged people living and working there where my lessons in acrobatics took place, I encountered a full array of humanity in age, social status, education and accomplishment. It was more or less inadvertently a richly diverse and enlightening background of encounter, inquiry and interaction with nearly every facet of humanity, history, taste and even architecture. Although the conflicts and disproportion were painful at times and distressing, it was all really a bounteous blessing in disguise -- a panoply encountered of the world in microcosm, including varying paths of religion, spirituality, possibility, and ascension. I'm very, very lucky to have known and learned from it all in ways very few are presented with such vast opportunity for immersion in multiple realities, consciousnesses, awareness and values/moralities.
What binds us together is tolerance and delight of diversity. Fear of "the other" separates and distorts it from the common denominators amongst us that afford happy, supportive, educational and fulfilling intermingling with friendship or at least unbigoted and unbound acquaintance. Closed minds, intolerance, paranoid suspicions and stereotypes unchecked and unverified make for very narrow and constricted lives out of the myriad truly available and accessible to us all, an impoverishment that lavish displays of wealth and position belie and circumscribe. We only have one pass through this world and life as we are to know its many-faceted offerings and prisms. No one can go back in time and change years of cloistered and clotted experience and choice. The past is ever past except perhaps in recollection, reexamination, and new analysis and apprehension of its true nature missed when living through it with bells and binders, blinders on and decisions made on false premises which seemed cogent and correct "back when."
My favorite high school course, chosen as an elective during senior year, was called Problems in Democracy, taught by a radical/liberal male teacher who assigned a wide assortment of diverse reading materials and encouraged students in sometimes raucous discussions of political philosophies and events worldwide. My observations and thoughts over previous years coalesced from that into a lifetime commitment to views and actions oppositional to those of my right-wing conservative Republican family, although many of my friends had always been from left-wing to radical backgrounds, educational endeavors and social activities.
For instance, in the summer of my junior year of high school, my best friend, from a liberal Democratic and Quaker family, and I did volunteer work with other members of her meeting house in Roxbury, an African-American ghetto suburb of Boston, fixing up old houses, mostly for widows. The next summer, a young white woman volunteer working there was doused with gasoline by local black men and set on fire. As she screamed and writhed in pain, onlookers watched without going to her assistance, and she finally died before them of her burn wounds. I believe a small memorial was erected later in her name as a martyr to the causes of integration and civil rights for all citizens.
When rock 'n' roll "hit the scene" in the forms of Elvis Presley, Chubby Checkers, Buddy Holly, Annette Funicello and the twist, most prominently, many parental figures, including mine, went ballistic. It was all decadent, amoral, anti-Christian. My personal favorite was Fabian, somewhat obscure now and pretty lost in the maze of talented personalities and controversy. My girlfriends and I practiced the new dance moves together to .45 rpm records playing on little manual turntables. The family gathered to watch in stony silence their mainstay "Ed Sullivan Show" allow Elvis to perform live, but broadcast only from the waist up so as not to perversely excite any of that steady icon's television viewing audience. We took to wearing bobbysocks, penny loafers, and ponytails if and when we could. Chaperones at school dances were stern, generally, in trying to keep boys and girls and their libidos in control and under publicly permissible lock and key. But it wasn't to be. We were wild with the "new sensation sweeping the nation," turned on to the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary, too. White gloves and Strauss waltzes gave way. It was a new day, a social upheaval taking sway, a revolution in awareness and possibilities. We were "animals" to the "old guard," indulging our basest instincts, throwing away form and formalities. Hubba, hubba, we might say. Loosen up your girdles, corsets and stays. We're rockin'. And we're drinkin', too, along the way.
My first love was named Kim, a year older than me and a student at Choate Academy, later Harvard with a B.A. in English, and then Columbia University in NYC with an M.B.A. Along with his younger brother and sister, we enjoyed drive-in movies, trips to southeast Canadian border towns, and meals and discussions at his parents' home, first in Wellesley and later in a suburban development created and owned by his father and located further outside of Boston. His mother had been a Rockette and entertained us with photos and stories of people, many of them famous, and events in Manhattan during the years of vaudeville. We drifted together and apart over a period of seven years, during which he delivered and sent poetry by himself and others off and on, before losing communication and contact completely.
Wellesley's Dana Hall, an all-girls day and boarding school, required its students to wear uniforms: pastel A-line, buttoned dresses in summer; white blouses and navy or black wool skirts in winter. Because mother changed my last name legally back to Gerlach from Scranton, her maiden name, I failed to answer for myself, not having adjusted to the new nomenclature, initially when the roles were called, and classmates laughed at the confusion, which disappeared pretty quickly, although I was never totally comfortable with the name, having never met or known my father or any of his family.
The classes I attended that year were small and excellent, most particularly chemistry where we turned cream into butter one day by hand-churning. Formal dances were held with nearby boys' prep schools and for one all the parents were sent a warning and admonition. One of the boys attending the upcoming invited school was African-American. We were to be polite and dance with him if he asked. My family, intolerant of difference, chose to keep me home, under protest, theirs and mine, instead. Bev, my best friend that year, lived the life I wanted for myself. Her parents were liberal, open-minded, well-educated, and intent that their daughter learn responsibility, financial and otherwise, early. She had a monthly allowance to cover buying her clothes, books, enjoyments and necessities which she was taught and learned to budget carefully so her pennies lasted through the end of each month and, of course, her personal possessions were what she herself chose by her own tastes and proclivities. Once participating in one of my grandmother's living room seances for the John Birch Society, including the watching of a film and discussion afterwards, Bev was polite and carefully in non-agreement with the political message and worldview.
A public school friend and I took in the springtime to skipping classes, boarding streetcars to Boston and watching movies like Susan Hayward in "I'll Cry Tomorrow" and browsing downtown streets and shops. We were only 13 and got caught and in trouble for it eventually, but it was a lot of adventurous fun and clandestine excitement for the meanwhile. As a result of it, and although my grades were excellent and I had a partial scholarship coming up, I wasn't invited back to that school the following year, having been "a bad influence" on classmates, who mostly thought it was all pretty funny. Instead, I returned to attending public classrooms in Newton.
In many ways I lived what was called then "a sheltered childhood." For instance, although Mother was sometimes escorted to the best Boston restaurants and parties by a homosexual, the only child of one of my grandmother's good friends, I didn't know what that term meant, just that it was a hush-hush situation, sort of like being in on the secret that he wore old sweatpants to clean his own apartment or something. It wasn't until living later in Manhattan that I comprehended the real significance of the word "homosexual" and years later that I learned with astonishment it was also applicable to relationships between women. That blood kin, or adults and children, engaged in sexual activities was incomprehensible and unbelievable to me until well into my 50's, when I finally accepted incontravertible evidence from reliable sources reluctantly and with much sympathy for children so abused and deprived of their innocence, comfort and healthy adult love with agonized and traumatic memories to accept and ameliorate in learning to create and participate in healthy relationships with forgiveness for crimes now widely publicized, prosecuted and punished.
I also didn't know that some people relate the size and shape of a man's fingers to that of his penis. My education came, as usual, abruptly as I once complimented a Hindu named Sashi during a group lunch on his lovely, delicate digits. He blushed profusely and a confused chatter ensued among other participants. Bewildered, I later asked my woman supervisor at the time what that had all been about and she explained, laughing at my naivity and with advice to be careful about voicing such observations in the future. Of course, the late 1990s' personally invasive investigations by Kenneth Starr et al relative to President Clinton's adamant denial of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky exposed youngsters worldwide, throughout accessible and blanketed media from articles to the internet, to the mechanical details of sexual intimacy, throwing many protective adults off-guard as children and others became fascinated, enthralled and overwhelmed with what in JFK's days would have been ignored publicly as inconsequent to the business of responsible law and government. I wonder now who advised Clinton to proceed as he did rather than simply acknowledge the truth, apologize to Monica, citizens and his wife for not concentrating on their and his duties of service to the country, and take whatever fall awaited him for straying, yet again, from the path of complete and loving commitment vows to others and to this nation. Although I very much admire, support and agree with his socio-economic policies, the Administration could have saved us all an awful lot of time, money, resources, discomfort, embarassment, and awkwardness by simply coming clean to begin with and the Special Prosecutor's Office would have had little or no business to attend in that regard anyway. That formal religions have attempted and somewhat succeeded in controlling various populaces by inquiring into and dogmatizing their most private expressions of affectionate and honest emotion, thereby gaining a handle on much other behavior and thought, is well-documented throughout our history on the planet and the derivation of the saying, "Where there is no privacy there is no freedom."
As a consequence of my relationship with Kim, which the family discerned without details, I was sent to Cushing Academy, a co-ed boarding school, for my junior year. My roommate in the long, brick girls dorm was Marty (Martha). On scholarship from a very country, impoverished family, she was small and athletic with short, dark, curly hair and very friendly. I don't remember our ever having an argument about anything. Instead, she invited me several times to her family's small farm with its chickens and peacocks, country cooking and warm, informal atmosphere. She also accompanied me quite a few times on shopping excursions to the nearest small city. We studied together amicably and did well usually in our classes as well as in sport activities like lacross, field hockey and basketball.
All our meals were in a co-ed dining room in the main building katty-corner across the street from the dorm where dances were also held and there was a piano that "Red" played, to our endless delight, by ear any song we requested or hummed, if he didn't know it. The rule was that students of opposite sexes were not allowed to touch, not even to hold hands, although liaisons grew and flourished in the shades of teenage curiosity, longings and endearments anyway. There were "dorm mothers," and fathers, I guess, for the boys, for questions and problems, and a nurse-staffed full-time infirmary building with medications and first aid. Caught with a girlfriend meeting our boyfriends behind the dorm late one night, we four were invited not to return the next year, although we were allowed to graduate since our classes were completed and only final exams remained. Rather than taking them, we had to be satisfied with the cumulative grades we'd earned so far during that last course period.
My best friends from grade through public high school were Brenda, Edna, Judy and Polly. The first lived in a small, landed old mansion and Polly's family was the poorest, but it didn't really matter to any of us at all. We were a nucleus of a larger group of girls who hung out, partied and adventured together, aligning and realigning in different formations with varying boyfriends and individual experiences which we generally shared. Because of Kim, I was one of the first to "go," but kept the details pretty much to myself, although "the fall" was common knowledge amongst us. One of the more distant in our group, a very small cheerleader, became pregnant by her regular boyfriend in our sophomore year. Her parents were very embarassed and sent her to a home for unwed mothers for birth and baby adoption. It was only allowed to be mentioned in hushed whispers throughout school grounds and classrooms.
The high school had three buildings: math, sciences, and foreign languages; english, history, and political science; and arts and sports, with a football field, tennis, baseball and softball diamonds, and tennis courts, a track, and an indoor basketball and exercise area with individual lockers and changing rooms and an infirmary. The science labs were well-equipped and classes not over-crowded. In our last two years, we could choose elective courses in addition to required ones. For my senior year, I chose drama and political science and continued into a third year of accelerated French language and literature class. Bored with quite a bit of it and intrigued by socio-political stirrings, I took again to skipping classes with friends, visting their homes to talk and party to current music, and traveling to other areas, including once the beach, sometimes. Caught again, I was suspended for a few days but managed to complete the year and graduate, to the fairly obvious dismay and disapproval of the principal as he handed me my diploma at the appointed place in line. But my grades were fine and so were my A.C.T.'s and S.A.T.'s, so I was accepted into Boston University for the 1962 fall semester. It was somewhat helpful also to be a semi-finalist Merit scholar.
One elective I chose in senior year was "Creative Writing" because, being a "book worm" when time allowed, I wanted to become an author, one of those practitioners I most admired, preferably a famous, insightful and glorious one. However, I realized fairly quickly that I hadn't enough knowledge and experience to say much meaningful or profound. One story was about a love affair on an island and received a good grade, but I was sure it was trite and ordinary. Totally dissatisfied with my output there, I devoted myself to attempts at living a life of study and reality that would create and contain manna for the great American novel in me some day hence. Decades later, the Virginia Shenandoah Valley A-frame seemed to me like the ideal setting for a writer and, when the opportunity arose through the internet, I jumped on it with enthusiastic study and prodigious effort, while also encouraging others in that pursuit too, including my letter-writing mother who was only grudgingly accepting occasionally about my output and that of others in ACR/OSCR, despite it all being multiply awarded, widely enjoyed and sometimes even loved. She insisted instead that I should pen children's stories. On investigation I found no inherent aptitude or pleasure in the strictures of that genre. One publisher wrote in detail about how I might adapt my style because she believed the concepts and content of some tales were inherently and creatively worthwhile.
When I complained once to a Luray psychotherapist that, no matter my initial intent, most stories came out as love affairs, she said that that is what people are really most curious about and interested in, whatever else they may read too, and what is pre-eminent in their everyday lives. Personally, I'm enamored presently of auto/biographies: real stories about real people and their real wide-ranging activities and experience in any era. The closest I've ever come to my early dream and goal are ACR/OSCR, Chameleon, Tapestry, and other accumulations of short stories, articles, verse and essays yet unpublished, with others still unfurled, cogitating or undiscovered. In the intervening years, the world of hardcopy publishing has become more narrowly defined and controlled. I encountered it with pre-warning and without success in passing around the millenia and learned in those attempts at a wider audience and remuneration some of the pitfalls and prerequisites: most particularly, "knowing someone(s)" and/or university affiliation and/or recommendation by published authors of that house or, secondarily, others. Those I knew who were published or self-published devoted much time and some expense in travel and promotion at fairs, speaking engagements, and public events.
The perceptive and astute guidance counselor at Newton High School had advised that I'd be happiest and do the best work in a small country college. However, Kim insisted I apply to Wellesley and Mother to Boston University. I chose the University of Massachusetts to which I was assigned the waiting list, while Wellesley College sent a polite denial of admission. Lost and distraught in the anonymous maze of B.U. and its auditorium-sized classes for freshmen, I dropped out quickly. Mother had sent me the previous summer through a two-month secretarial school to learn business formalities, typing and my own brand of idiocyncratic shorthand, which I could sometimes read back coherently and/or correctly. I did love the concept and actuality, though, of translating sounds, phonetics, to symbols. Without much effort, instead, I found employment with a downtown insurance company as an inventory clerk. My desk with its clunky black manual typewriter and frustratingly twined and twirled ribbons pushed into a windowed back corner of a very large room lined with shelves of stationary, pens, forms, rubber bands, and other miscellany. My job was to keep track of them and reorder when the stacks became too low.
During this interim and for a thankfully brief period of time as girls and young women, my friends and I, and our mothers and aunts, wore specially-designed, absorbant white pads under our arms to capture sweat, perspiration, and keep it from staining our blouses and dresses and embarassing us in public with wet rings there. I believe the padding appurtenances either attached to our bras or had their own separate straps and were not the least bit comfortable, however effective they may have been in some instances. For that matter, neither were stayed girdles and wired, padded push-up bras. At least in the former happenstance, and that of kotex, industry answered well the needs of females and came up with a wide assortment of strong deodorants, roll-on and stick most particularly, and ever-diminishing sizes of easily applicable tampons. For the latter, society eventually relaxed its restrictions that female bodies be firmly and severely trussed and presented as something quite different and fairly unmoveable, than their natural appearance in private and intimate relationships. The application of facial makeup was studiously learned in technique and varieties of acceptable appearance from one situation and time to another. Nylons, kept aloft by garters, had seams that needed to be kept straight by frequent checking.
My salary of $55 a week was increased by $10 when the manager promoted me after maybe five months to a desk in the front room of rows of the same to clerk for a claims adjuster. Back then, all of those were white males and all the clerks were white females. In my spare time I attended free chamber music concerts at a nearby smaller and historic museum and volunteered part-time with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in the area. That organization had a two-story brick building, with a fenced and tarred playground in the back, housing young girls of all ages who'd been removed by Courts from abusive homes. They were awaiting transfer into foster facilities and most were African-Americans. One I still remember had skin spockled in many sizes and shapes pink and dark brown. I don't recall any being behavior problems, but just children in need of care, affection and productive exercise for their minds and bodies -- all of which were provided there.
I also made friends with an insurance company co-worker whose chosen name was Anya and visited her tiny one-room apartment mid-city many times where we drink Russian tea and played with her cat, Misha. Small, attractive and fragile, Anya was an orphan from Pennsylvania who'd joined the armed services for training and income and had received an early honorable discharge for psychiatric reasons. She loved Tolstoy particularly, anything Russian generally, and we planned to become roommates elsewhere but the apartment contract fell through. Shortly thereafter, I found more interesting and better-paying employment, with backup duties as a switchboard operator, as secretary to a suburban manufacturing manager, who turned out to play saxaphone in a jazz trio that frequented small, smoky urban stages some weeknights and weekends. Anya and I drifted apart by distance and busyness.
One odd thing about growing up surrounded by relative luxury, privilege, classic art and valuable items like, somewhat frivolously, 14-karat gold brocaded and monogrammed thimbles of which we had two, along with Limoges china and a profusion of antique cut crystal, is that one takes them for granted. They're as much a part of the environment as American chestnut trees, ring-necked pheasants and wild grapes were to farmers years ago and perceived as just the way things are supposed to be. As with other aspects of life and culture over millenia, they change and life forms adapt although the extinction of value is not to be prized or sought after. No doubt any who can recall the beauty and majesty of the native chestnut, for instance, mourn its passing through blight as much as I miss the heritage treasure of my grandmother's sewing implement. Both evoke memories in picture and story of bygone ways and people that were and are treasured, at least in the minds and hearts of some still living, and nostalgia amidst our high-tech commercial complexities for simpler, clearer, warmer times of skills and structure now confined most often to museums. There are few, if any, extant trolley cars as used to roll by track and wire through downtown Johnson City and San Francisco or horse-drawn wagons for conveying produce and persons, their reality along with the dress and manner of those who used them confined to photographs in sepia and black & white for sharing by individuals and galleries with youngsters, perhaps, who might be interested, and older folk who delight in being reminded of all our history and heritage, the development of a nation and civilization through innovation and public favor, and the excitement those introductions brought to home, business and society.
"Nobless oblige" then meant heartful sharing with and caring for those less fortunate in mind of the adage, "There but for the grace of God go I" (my grandmother), and complaint of any kind was discouraged firmly with, "It's sweet to weep on a golden throne" (mother). "Waste not want not" entailed sewing back on or replacing all lost buttons, mending any tears or drooping hemlines, and saving everything or recycling, including annual Salvation Army and Good Will donations. "Rendering unto Caesar" meant paying taxes honestly and without dalliance for services rendered like roads, schools, emergency personnel and equipment, and public administrative duties. Always a member of one church or another, "Nana" pledged fixed household amounts regularly and fulfilled that as religiously as she noted personally every penny spent and where daily and made sure home help was promptly and dependably paid with monetary gifts for the holidays. She assured that her family was well-attired for the seasons and served with the best and immediate medical care. At home that was for minor harms like twisted ankles hot water and epsom salts in a large pot from the stovetop, warm lemonade and honey for sore throats, warm milk and orange juice for colds, salves for abrasions, and bandaging for smaller wounds after thorough cleaning with soap and warm water and swabbing with peroxide. More serious problems received superior medical professional and hospital care. When I showed signs of becoming near-sighted, by being moved repeatedly toward the front row in sixth grade, that was Boston's best opthamologist. Twice she herself stayed at the Mayo Clinic for treatment of colitis, now considered to be an ailment brought on by nervous conditions, and later by excellent Miami physicians for diverticulitis. A Manhattan facelift in her 70s was performed by a world-famous cosmetic surgeon and noted in the newspaper as earlier reception shows of her artwork had been in Massachusetts.
My best friend says detailed obituaries were printed by some New England news outlets in 1976, but I didn't see or know of them. By that time, at 88, few of "Nana"'s blood kin or good friends and admirers were still living. Staying alone for ten years as a widow, she said somewhat despondently to begin with that she missed having someone to care for as she had regularly for 45 years in various numbers and residences. Suggestions for volunteer activities never materialized. She mourned the lost joys of household and family obligations and warmly entwining involvements, writing me weekly as ever with concise relating of her "doings," gentle advice, and caring. She always helped when I really needed that and asked, as well as otherwise. When she died, I knew I was truly on my own materially, but not spiritually. Nearly everyone who ever knew her from any walk of life respected and loved Marjorie Scranton for her generosity, kindness and thoughtful manners, frequently for her artistic abilities and taste, and sometimes for her occasionally quirky and quixotic ways. Along with my two stalwart great-great-aunts, "Nana" was and is my heroine, the one I've known and identified with best personally. If for no other reason than that we share a small-boned and somewhat delicately fragile skeletal structure which allowed me to wear her clothes.
-- Lydia M. Child (1802-1880), abolishionist, activitist, novelist, journalist, and poet who wrote extensively on justice issues for Native Americans, African Americans, and women
"Our life is frittered away by detail.... Simplify, simplify."
Meditations/prayers from Silent Unity's 2008 On Sacred Ground calendar:
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